I know there’s no particular season to enjoy a Victoria sponge or get a pav going, but come strawberry season, I have this hankering for delicate puds. Free from the excesses of the festive months behind us, these desserts have to be just as indulgent, while not weighing me down with guilt after I’ve set down my dessert spoon. Last year, I put strawberries in a cheat trifle and roasted them with rich balsamic and oozing soft cheese. This year, after a whole month of eating heavy, I wanted something with strawberries that would not overwhelm and sit comfortably beside a bean casserole or show up after a light but hearty meal of dal, sabzi and rice.
This nutty Nigel Slater-inspired meringue with a custard top is the kind of delightful dessert that aspired to be an Eton mess, but never got to the glass. The best part about serving this meringue is the bit where you crush the swirly peaks lightly and top it with strawberries and custard – there’s something about the squelching sound the meringue makes as it sinks under the weight of the berries that’s oddly gratifying.
If you’re new to meringue-making, there’s nothing to be scared about, as long as you follow the rules. Meringue is made with sugar and stiff beaten egg whites, which is baked long and slow over low heat to yield a marshmallowy pillow that acts as a blank canvas for other flavours.
Here are a few of my favourite tips for making meringue:
-Make sure the eggs are room temperature and your bowl is sparkling clean.
-Heating the sugar before adding it to your Meringue not only stabilises the meringue as it whips, but also makes it okay to eat because you’ve in a way pasteurised the egg whites.
-Once the meringue is done cooking, turn the oven off and let the meringue stay inside the oven with a wooden spoon jutting out of the oven door.
-As a rule of thumb, always make sure the sugar in the meringue is more or less double the volume of the egg whites you start with. More sugar will always yield a crisper, firmer meringue with less chances to screw up there, and less sugar will yield a lighter meringue.
You could top your Meringue with those little tetra packs of custard too instead of making the custard from scratch like I have. I know it’s a very lazy thing to do, so I don’t condone it, but it’s definitely an idea if you’re pressed for time. Part of me is incredibly happy that I get to use up the yolks for custard later, so no part of the eggs will be going to waste, or sit in the freezer for longer than necessary.
For the meringue
Caster sugar 250g
Egg whites 6
Cornflour 1 tbsp
White wine vinegar 2 tsp
For the custard:
Vanilla extract 1 tsp
Caster sugar 50g
Egg yolks 6
Strawberries 1/2 box
You’ll need a long rectangular Swiss roll tin for the meringue. A brownie tin’s sides are high and this will make it difficult for you to shape your Meringue.
Start with the custard. Heat the milk over medium heat and bring to a boil. Add to this the vanilla extract and take it off the heat.
Whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour in another bowl and pour some of the warm milk inside the bowl to temper this mixture, stirring it all to combine. Add this mixture back to the remaining milk and once again bring the pan back to heat on a medium flame stirring continuously till it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and leave it in a glass bowl to cool to room temperature, after which you should transfer the mixture to the refrigerator with a cling film touching the surface of the custard if you’re finicky about a skin forming on top.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
Scatter the caster sugar in a thin layer on a baking tray and pop it in the oven for five minutes to warm thoroughly. Put the egg whites in a mixing bowl and start whisking with a hand whisk or a stand mixer over low speed till white and fluffy. Turn up the speed to medium and add the warm sugar a few tablespoons at a time and keep whisking till the egg whites are stiff and glossy. Mix in the cornflour and the vinegar.
Toast the walnuts over a medium heat on a tawa to darken the skins a bit. Rub the walnuts in a towel to get some of the skin off, it’s fine if all don’t come off. Put them back on the tawa for a minute more to get a colour going, but not for any longer because otherwise they will go bitter. Chop them up and add them to the meringue as soon as the meringue has stiffened into peaks.
Line the base of the rectangular tin you will be using for the meringue and scrape the meringue mixture into the tin, shaping it from the sides, pushing it to the edges and levelling the top.
Place this in the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 140 degrees Celsius. Bake this for 40 minutes or till crisp and marshmallowy on top. Turn the oven off and wedge a wooden spoon into the oven door to keep it slightly open. Cool this for 10 minutes in the oven, then bring it out.
Once the meringue cools, press in the crust slightly and add the cold custard in big spoonfuls on top and sprinkle over some chopped strawberries to finish.